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Artist's life a work in progress

More than 30 years after setting his artwork aside to focus on business and politics, Jim Smith has returned to exploring his artistic talent.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 16, 2000

Jim Smith critically examines the nude figure before him, poking at her breasts with his thumbs in an effort to flatten them just a bit.

"She had a boob job," he says of the model who months ago posed for the clay figure he now holds in his hands. "I'm not into that. It's not natural."

So, dressed in a Williams Sonoma apron and wielding a small carving tool, Smith -- Pinellas County property appraiser by day, sculptor by night -- endeavors to make the woman's breasts a bit more, ahem, God-given.

"I'm doing the realism thing right now," he says.

Smith, 60, hardly fits the artist's stereotype. For one thing, he's not starving. He lives quite comfortably in a $345,000 home in Clearwater just minutes from the property appraiser's office, where he earns $121,000 a year.

He's been a successful businessman, a politician for more than 20 years and an active member of the state's Republican Party. His pants are carefully creased.

There is no scarf thrown flamboyantly around his neck. No exaggerated French accent.

In fact, people who have known Smith for decades are just beginning to discover his talent, one he had tucked away for years in favor of a life devoted to business and politics.

"When you've known someone for a long time and you have one perception of them and then you see evidence of this incredible talent . . . Jim is a wonderful person, and I've known him forever, but I just never thought of him as an artist," said Deborah Clark, Pinellas County supervisor of elections. "What shocked his friends is that he never told anyone. And he's not shy about telling you how good he is at things."

Now, Smith keeps a few of his bronze sculptures on his office desk. He occasionally shows up at county meetings toting a sketch pad. When the International Association of Assessing Officers holds a conference, Smith is the one at the executive board table with a lump of clay.

"Yes, he does keep us all very well-entertained, sculpting during our meetings. It's absolutely fascinating to watch him," said Deborah King, the board's vice president and the assessor for Union County in North Carolina. "It's really neat to have a diversion sometimes when you're talking about issues that aren't particularly exciting, that you can look at something so amazing going on right in front of you."

"The rest of us just play with our paper," said board president Ed Crapo, Alachua County's property appraiser.

Crapo once brought Play-Doh for Smith to work with, but "he complains it doesn't have the consistency to hold the form and shape," Crapo said.

Smith is not looking to replace Rodin any time soon. But he's come a long way from his mother's kitchen, where as a toddler he sculpted with bread dough. His mother, Harriet, bought him his first artist's clay when he was 3.

"He always had a chunk of clay in his pocket," said Harriet Smith, who more than once had to rewash the laundry after failing to remove the clay from her son's pockets. "I knew he was gifted. He didn't need much encouragement. All he needed was some clay."

He once dreamed of becoming an artist.

But he had a family to support and college loans to pay off. So after traveling around the world on a Navy submarine, Smith set aside his art supplies, put on a suit and tie and joined the business world.

For 20 years, he owned a company that sold high-tech electronics to manufacturing companies.

A staunch Republican, he served two terms in the Florida Legislature before losing twice in bids for secretary of state. He lost his first race for property appraiser in 1984, but won the office four years later and has been there ever since.

But the little boy who played with bread dough and molded clay during church never completely disappeared. He collected art and visited galleries, remaining critical of the "frilly, happy" pieces that sell well but, he says, lack soul.

Wife presses critic of art to do some

After a December 1998 trip to a gallery in Carmel, Calif., where Smith says, "I was being typical, obnoxious, critical me," his wife urged him to quit talking about other people's art and make some of his own.

"On the plane coming back, she said, "You've been talking about art since I've known you, but you don't do art. You don't sculpt. You don't paint. You don't draw. I'm kind of tired of it,' " Smith recalled. "It was kind of put up or shut up."

His wife, Circuit Judge Catherine Harlan, enrolled him in an art class in Belleair. More than 30 years after setting his artwork aside, all Smith needed was a push in the right direction, she said.

"You could just see the real desire there to put his creative juices to work," said Harlan, who said Smith's artwork has become his passion again. "It's 1 o'clock in the morning and he hasn't come to bed, and I come downstairs and he's in the middle of something. His back is killing him, and he won't quit until his eyes cross."

Seemingly every room in Smith's home serves as an extended part of his art studio. He is never more than an arm's reach from a pile of small carving and shaping tools or a sketch pad.

Clay figures in various stages of completion loiter about, waiting for facial expressions, fingernails and muscles.

"Right now, I'm working at my own pace, which is not real speedy," Smith said. "But not a day goes by that I'm not working on a piece."

Smith's sculptures start as blobs of clay clinging to an aluminum wire frame. He pays nude models $10 to $15 an hour to pose for him while he adds bone structure, muscle tone, features and hair texture to his work.

Sculptor seeks models willing to pose nude

How does he find willing models? He meets a few through other artists, and some he spots on the street.

"I say, "I'm a sculptor. I'm not trying to hit on you or anything, but would you consider modeling?' They say, "Nude?' I say, "Well, yeah,' " Smith said. "The whole anatomy is neat. I see a model in anybody, something in anybody that's interesting."

He insists the nudes are merely "subject matter," but his non-artist friends have raised a few eyebrows.

"The guys I play golf with can't believe I do this," Smith said.

The process from beginning to end is painfully slow. Once the clay has been shaped, rubber and plaster are brushed onto the figure to create a mold. The mold is then pried off the clay, which is thrown away.

Wax is poured into that mold, and once dry, the artist must "chase" the imperfections from the wax figure before covering it in a ceramic casing.

The wax is then melted from the casing, and hot liquid bronze is poured in. Once the bronze has hardened, artists can spray various acids on it to change its color.

One of the first pieces Smith created was a bronze of a seated woman in a floppy hat reading a book. Dorothy Walker Ruggles, the late supervisor of elections, bought this sculpture. Smith is now designing a bronze memorial to Ruggles, who died in May of breast cancer.

Pinellas County attorney Susan Churuti also bought a copy of the seated woman.

"I have it on my mantel at home," she said. "I just liked it. There's just something about the lines."

Smith's mother considers the piece her favorite, as does his wife. As for Smith, he's not crazy about the seated lady. And because he does not live off his art, he does not have to mass-produce pieces that sell well.

"I can do what I want to do," he said. "If you like it, you buy it. If not, go away."

He has grander plans than the seated woman. He is hard at work on a series depicting man's inhumanity to man: scenes from the Holocaust, slavery and ethnic cleansing.

"I don't want to be morbid, but life is morbid," he said. "A lot of artists like to do frilly, happy things. My feeling is an artist should be depicting his society and talking about things that are important."

Smith was automatically elected this year to a fourth term as property appraiser after no one filed to run against him. He is toying with the idea of becoming a full-time artist when his term expires in 2004.

"What better thing could you do than this?" he asked.

"All my life I wanted to be remembered as an artist. After all these years in business and other things, I thought, "I guess I've really blown it.' I was afraid maybe I'd lost it. But I still have it. That's good to know. It keeps me off the streets," he said, grinning. "Now I'm at home with nude women. Thank God I have an understanding wife."

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